AC100 Afterthoughts

  Blog, Community Blog   11   

I’m finding it hard to sit down and organize my thoughts; probably mostly due to the lingering sleep deprivation that I am feeling from the weekend. Now that it’s Wednesday some of the fog is starting to lift and I’m able to process a little more of what happened. Until today I was still in a state mixed of adrenaline and fatigue. I have been having a hard time completing basic tasks. I considered waiting a few more days to try to come up with a post about the weekend but every time Jesse comes home from the gym he reinforces how many questions people are asking him about what happened and how I’m doing now. I appreciate your interest. I also appreciate that it is hard for Jesse to answer questions on my behalf. Like I mentioned in my post before the race, this whole process has been very personal for me. I didn’t talk about it too much with people and I didn’t really think that anyone cared too much what I was up to. Over the past few days my mind has been blown by how many people have told me that they followed along with every single checkpoint of the race. I realize that I took many of you for a stressful ride and hopefully I can share with you a little bit of what was going on on my end. My goal with this post is to stay humble but I’m also going to be really honest. It is still a very personal thing for me and I feel strange telling the world wide web about it, but I also can’t believe how many of you want to know the details… so I will do my best. I hope you can relate to pieces of it on some level, or maybe at some point in the future pieces of it will suddenly resonate with you. I am not an elite athlete… just a regular person with big aspirations and a support network that allows me to pull off stuff like this.

The week leading up to the race in Wrightwood was fantastic. The cabin was great and everyone around me was so relaxed that it was easy for me to stay calm. In the end I truly was able to stand on the start line calm, excited and only a little nervous. I met up with Summer who is a CrossFitter and trail running coach in LA who I have been messaging with over the last 8 weeks. It was so awesome to have someone who could relate to the process I was going through and didn’t mind talking about it all day every day.

We stood on the dark start line together and could hardly believe that it was actually about to happen. The race started and we headed up the Acorn trail out of Wrightwood towards the Pacific Crest Trail (runs from Mexico to Canada). Summer had been dealing with a sinus infection over the past two weeks so after about half an hour she said she was going to hang back a bit, and from that point I climbed alone towards the first summit. It’s a strange position to be in… feeling good and knowing that the clarity of mind is only going to last for a short while. I moved really comfortably through the first couple of checkpoints. I laughed with my crew at the 1st aid station because I had a mosquito bite on my leg that was really itchy and I knew that as long as the itchy bite was bothering me things overall couldn’t be too bad. I had heard from so many veterans of 100 milers the importance of starting the race VERY conservatively. Some even say to be conservative for the first 80 miles. They also say its not a big deal to play closely with the time cutoffs. Given that my goal was just to finish, and that even the slightest error in my game plan could take me out, I worked hard to stay very calm, run my own race and hold back as much as possible in the beginning.

The first truly hard moment of the race came for me on the climb up to Mount Baden Powell which peaks at over 9300 ft at 17ish miles. I knew that elevation would be a slight issue for me given that I couldn’t train at that altitude so I resigned myself to going slow and breathing hard. I was still surprised HOW winded I was.

On the descent from Baden Powell I suddenly started getting knee pain in my right knee that I had not experienced before. It freaked me out right away because I could tell that it was staying. After quite a bit of thinking about this over the last few days, I now think that it came from my right quad being over engaged from driving so much the week leading up to the race. We had done A LOT of driving around and it’s all I can think of that would have caused it to flare up like that. I haven’t had knee pain in ages, and not that kind. So to manage it I realized that I had to be extra conservative on the downhills. Overall I was still feeling pretty good. The mid day heat was building and I headed up Mt Williamson which has a reputation of being horrendously hot and difficult. Jesse had forced bacon wrapped turkey down my throat at the aid station before it and I actually felt pretty good. I had been really nervous about the socal heat in July and yet I didn’t feel all that bad. On that ascent I passed 5 people who were severely suffering from the heat. They were hardly coherent when I passed them and 3 of them were separately sitting on the side of the trail. I got a solid march on and made it to the top in not bad timing. The descent was tricky, and now that I think back it was actually pretty dangerous. A lot of this course had sections with huge potential to fall a long way on a missed step. By the time I was at the next aid station I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the course. 30 miles is a tough place to be in a 100 mile race…. you’ve gone a long way, but have a way longer way to go.

The crew set me up with an ice bandana and ice electrolytes in my camelback and I headed for two torturous miles on the pavement before descending into Cooper Canyon which is known to be an oven. My knee was starting to hurt really badly and it was affecting my ability to run downhill at all. I had left Eagle’s Roost with a 50 minute buffer from time cutoff and I knew I had a bit of time to play with so I walked a lot of the downhills. The canyon was really hot, but again I was surprised that I was not totally aggravated by it. I truly believe that my sauna sits made a big difference in my ability to tolerate the heat. The section was meant to be just over 7 miles to the next checkpoint but as 7 miles came and went I realized I wasn’t really all that close to the aid station. I watched the time cutoff of 4:30pm get closer. Nobody was really changing positions too much at this point so I knew that it wasn’t just me losing time. When I finally rolled into the next checkpoint at Cloudburst you could feel the stress of the crews looking down on us as we climbed up to the road. I had made cutoff with only 20 minutes to spare…. definitely stressful but I wasn’t super concerned because Summer had told me that the next section was flowy and good for making up time. I also worried for Summer at that point because I didn’t know for sure that she was still in the race, but if she was I wondered if she could make that cutoff.

The crew was full Nascar at this checkpoint and shuffled me out really quickly. The trail was smooth and I started to move really quickly and passed a couple of people. Then my knee started killing me. I had to slow down a lot. I know what happens when you limp… it becomes a terrible chain reaction of compensatory issues. Because I was afraid of my other leg taking too much load I slowed down to the point that my knee was comfortable. I was walking again and so frustrated. I had taken a couple of 200 mg advils at this point and it was helping a little but knowing how much was ahead of my I started to get worked up about what was going to happen.

I rolled into the 3 Point aid station having made up more time again but so uncomfortable/frustrated/scared that it was the beginning of the end of my race that I was crying. I don’t cry often but it was uncontrollable. This is when life gets really stressful for your husband and your crew. All I could think was that I was so miserable and that if I dropped out I was not coming back next year to finish what I started. That made dropping out NOT an option. I came into this race knowing that no matter what happened I would never ever quit. They iced my knee, gave me some advil, got some fruit into me and left me alone with Jesse. I was so upset that I couldn’t even see. The thought of this being the moment of quitting and leaving everything behind that I had put into it scared me to death. My mind wanted to go on so badly but I didn’t want to hurt myself. Jesse was amazing at dealing with me. I don’t even remember what he said… but within five minutes I was walking out of the aid station saying “Number 67 leaving”, still crying, and holding a piece of steak in my hand. All dignity gone. What was so hard for me leaving this aid station was knowing that the crew wouldn’t be at the mile 49 aid station and I wouldn’t see them until Chilao checkpoint at 52.9. You get very dependent on seeing your crew and knowing that they will be supportive and help you get what you need. I was worried that I wouldn’t be in a state of taking care of myself without them. In retrospect, this was the turning point in the race for me and the fact that I knew I wasn’t going to see them again for a while allowed me to go to a different place in my head.

It was uphill for a bit so my knee felt ok and by the time I got to the next gradual descent the advil had helped in and I was able to run a bit without limping. I caught up to two other women that I hadn’t really seen much in the race so far… one had been a few minutes ahead the whole time and the other just behind. We started to move together which was the first time in the race I had really spent any time with other runners (except very early on while we were closely packed). The light was starting to feel like late day sun and we actually chatted a little bit to take our minds off things. We got into a really good groove marching side by side on the climb up to Mt. Hillyer and told ourselves out loud lots of positive reinforcing statements. There was a strong sense of companionship for sure. We passed a guy a mile or so from the top who was limping badly and clearly suffering. He asked us where the aid station was and then after we answered he asked us it we would punch him in the face. I think he really meant it. We tried to encourage him but we were moving strong and kept going to the checkpoint. Hal, the 80 year old race director, was sitting in a chair up there and was so suprised by our happy moods that he took a photo of us (he later told me at the finish line that he didn’t think we were going to make it when he saw us there). We gave ourselves 3 minutes max at the station and headed out knowing that we wanted to get through the “boulder field” before it got dark. I pulled ahead of the other two women on the descent and got to Chilao checkpoint to pick up Di just as it was getting dark.

It was so nice to pick up Di and have some company. I also knew that the time cutoffs were much more generous through the second half of the course so a lot of the stress about that was gone for a while. The next section for me though was mentally one of the toughest. My body had gone numb at this point. I spent less time thinking about what hurt or ached. It was getting harder and harder to eat solid foods but I knew I still had to. I figured out that if I threw a piece of food in my mouth that I could take two quick bites without having to taste it, squirt some water in my mouth and swallow it without my tongue ever really touching it. Anything other than this routine would make me gag. By this point my body was moving on autopilot, and the terrain was relatively easy compared to what I had been doing. I knew that I could make up time here if I had to but I didn’t so I kept moving conservatively. I was worried about my knee. But mostly I was just SO tired. Sleepy tired. My body knew it was bed time and Di and I moved in silence for 6 miles and all I could think about what how I was going to convince the crew to let me have a 5 minute nap in the chair when I got to the next checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that a) they would let me, or b) it would help at all… but it was all I could think about. It was hard to adjust to moving in the dark because all you got to look at was a small patch of ground in front of you. There were no beautiful scenery distractions anymore.


Eating at the next checkpoint was really hard. If I had been more with it I would have laughed out loud at the tactics the crew were using to try to trick me to eat. There was no laughing for me at this point. It’s amazing how some things like watermelon were ok but the thought of other things that I normally like were a total no go. Unfortunately yams became that for me. I did get a little protein in and I had a Guayaki energy shot and that helped a ton to get me going. Di and I laughed and stumbled through the next bunch of miles. We were on our own now with no crew at the next check point, and wouldn’t see everyone again until Chantry Flats in the very early morning. We moved well through the night and I felt numb but with a renewed sense of determination. We hiked the uphills hard and Di did an amazing job of updating me on our pacing and timing. We kept things on track through the night. At the Newcomb’s Saddle checkpoint at 2:30am a guy in a grass skirt and a coconut bikini top helped us refuel. He also appeared to have the not so pleasant job of vasolining people’s feet. Now that’s a no glory volunteer job. There were so many people at that checkpoint just sitting in chairs. It was like they had sat down to refuel but never got up again. It almost looked like they were on a camping trip.

The descent from Newcomb’s Saddle to Chantry Flats was technical and kind of sketchy. Both of our headlamps were losing battery but we didn’t realize because they were both the same. Not smart but those are the lessons you learn. I had heard from lots of vets of the race that Chantry Flats aid station is one of the hardest places for people. It’s at 75 miles, the wee hours of the morning, and after it you don’t get to see your crew again until the finish line. Knowing this I made sure that I ate a bunch heading into the aid station so that I would be on a food high and I wouldn’t feel as demoralized. We made it in on schedule with almost an hour buffer on the time cutoff. Jesse did some repair on my feet, tried to feed me a hamburger, the crew reloaded my bags, the medical tent people weighed me to make sure I hadn’t lost too much weight, I didn’t even say bye to Di, and then Nils and I headed out. We had a 40 minute buffer leaving Chantry Flats.

We left Chantry still in the dark. I knew it was a long climb up to the Mt. Wilson toll road. Again with new company I felt slight better. It also helped that I knew it would get light out soon. The climb started very gradually so I felt good marching along like I had been. But it started to get really steep quickly and I think I can say this is where my mind truly went into a different place. The climb was crushing. I started to worry/panic that I had come this far and wasn’t going to make it. I pushed hard up the climb and was breathing way too hard for how far I still had to go. I was probably asking Nils every five minutes if I was going to make it. Sorry Nils… so stressful. I was getting a little behind on my food but I only felt like I could stomach my Accelerade which wasn’t quite enough for the section we were on. I kept thinking that I had a rock in my right shoe but it turned out it was a deep blister forming under the ball of my foot. I don’t have many really clear mental images, but I do have one of being slumped on the trail, sticking my foot in the air for Nils to patch it, trying to eat a piece of Lara bar because I knew I was getting behind on my food for how hard the climb was, realizing the flavor was pineapple and not lemon like I thought, gagging on it and throwing it down the hill. That single moment might be most horrendous that I felt in the whole race.

If I had to choose a phrase to describe the 9 hours that Nils and I spent getting to the finish I would say gritty determination. With the steepness of the terrain it was really difficult to gauge our pacing. The further we got the more afraid I got of not making it. I don’t know that I have ever wanted something so badly. I’m not even sure I can put into words the state that my head was in. The foundation was complete sleep deprivation, layered with complete physical exhaustion, but a solid dose of adrenaline that allowed me to push hard on what felt like autodrive. Every switch back on the way up felt like it crushed my soul when I saw it wasn’t the last one. It felt like an absolute eternity to reach the top of that first climb. My mood lightened as we started the descent and the sun was fully up but I still couldn’t run it because I knew my knee was too touchy and it was getting really hot already. I was about 12 regular advils in a this point which is enough to keep you distracted from the pain, but also enough to set you up to make a stupid decision regarding the integrity of your system. I should make it very clear that I never wanted to take advil as I know the risks to the kidneys in this situation. I am extremely careful about hydration and electrolytes and know that having these in check are the only way you can possibly get away with this. I generally am strongly against meds of any sort and don’t love that this is how it went for me in this situation.

We rolled through Idlehour checkpoint almost without stopping as we had about 25 minutes buffer at this point. There was no room for any errors and my fear of not making it was so strong that I felt like I was losing my mind. Nils and I crushed the next section including the final climb up to Sam Merrill aid station. It was so hot but we soaked our bandanas and hung them off the backs of our hats. We climbed steadily and made it to the checkpoint with an hour buffer. I was so excited because we had bought more time and I felt like for sure nothing could go wrong now. We could tell we had made up time because we had pulled away from the women behind us and hadn’t seen anyone other than one guy who was suffering badly on the climb (turns out that he dropped out at that aid station). The girls I had been with on and off through the night were just a little ways back now but I was sure they were going to make it with enough time too (the last thing in the world I felt was competitive with women around me… I just wanted us all to finish). We reloaded and started the 6+mile descent to the final aid station. This descent took FOREVER. It was loose and technical and meandered all over the side of the mountain. We stopped seeing yellow course flagger for a while and I got completely paranoid that we were off course. I can only imagine how high Nils’s stress level was at this point. He was so calm about it and reassuring though I know that’s not how he felt. Those are the situations when, if you don’t have a pacer, you do really stupid things. Pacers are like gold out there. Thank god we were on track but we were also losing our buffer time quickly. There were also a couple of sections where it wasn’t totally clear which way the course went and we had to spend a few minutes checking the course description. All in all this leg of the race was extremely stressful and deflating because I suddenly realized that I hadn’t actually secured a finish. It was so hot and we were rushing so I was paying less attention to how much I was eating and drinking. Time has this weird way of going really quickly out there when you are racing the clock. Two hours can go by and feel like half an hour. That’s how food can be so easily forgotten. This whole section felt like a nightmare where things were speeding by and I had no control.

When we finally got to the last checkpoint we had an hour and half until the cutoff of the whole race. The course cutoffs state that the last aid station cutoff was 50 minutes later but it was well known by people on course that it’s impossible to make it from the last aid station to the finish in only 40 minutes. The aid station crew were really stressed and wanted us to get out of there as fast as possible. They said we COULD make it if we hussled but we would have to move fast. A volunteer dumped a bucket of icewater on my head and I grabbed a giant piece of watermelon. It was a mile or so climb out of there and so hot. I marched harder than at any point in the whole race. We ran most of that last section. I could tell I was starting to destroy my feet. It was only just under 5 miles to the finish but it wasn’t super fast terrain for the first portion. We were pretty sure I was going to make it but there were no guarantees and a mistake could still me made. We kept asking hikers how far to the paved road but we got too many different answers. Hearing “a mile and a half” just isn’t that reliable. I had the strangest sensation in this section. I was sure that I was in absolute last place. I have never been in last place; in running (and most other) events I’m always in the top quarter. I was actually really proud of it though. All I could think was that I was the last survivor standing. The guys at the 2nd last aid station had told us that 50 people had dropped from the race. There is something extremely empowering about knowing that you have persevered while others around you have dropped.

We ran as hard as I could at that point and made it to the paved road in Pasadena. Suddenly we realized that someone was behind us. I had been changing places with Claire the entire race as we had different strengths. I couldn’t believe that she had made up that much time and was also going to make it. We both half ran half walked the last mile in knowing that we were actually going to make it. Once we got the the grass in the park I pulled it together and ran to the finish line. It was the most surreal experience. I have many times been the person at the finish line cheering in the last place people but never really understanding how they felt. Those people at the finish line in Pasadena cheered so hard. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. Summer (who had dropped because of an asthma issue at mile 29) was waiting for me crying and gave me a huge hug. In the true spirit of sport she had come back to support me at the finish and said “I’m so proud of you.. you did it for both of us”. I was bombarded by more crying friends who hugged me/mauled me 🙂 It truly was one of those moments in life that you will absolutely never ever forget. What blew my mind was when there was 4 minutes left on the clock until race cutoff at 33 hours, the two women who I had hiked up Mt Hillyer with made it in. I can only imagine how hard they worked in the last 10 miles and the stress they must have felt coming from that last aid station. It felt really complete to have us all finish.

I feel like telling this story boils it down too simply. It’s like when you go on the most amazing trip ever and you get the photos and they are only so so. The depths of what I experienced I will never be able to fully explain. I don’t know that I can even match the experience. Like I said before, there is something so special about the discovery of doing something for the first time.

I learned stuff about myself that previously I had only hoped was true. I knew I was determined but I didn’t know if I was determined enough. In a race of that duration the “easy button” sits in front of you the whole time. There are so many opportunities to make it just not work out. I was constantly aware that if I just didn’t make the next cutoff it would all be over. It would just happen and not be my fault. And I could take comfort in the stats that close to 40% of starters don’t finish. I thought about that a lot when cutoffs were tight and the thought of sitting in the rental car was tempting. But if I took that option I would NEVER get over it. I would forever feel guilty for not having fought to the absolute end. Think about how often after a WOD we think “I could have probably have done a few more reps”. Now imagine how that would feel in a race that you spent every minute of the last 10 months of your life preparing for.

We as humans are very good at making up reasons why its ok to fail. It protects us. But I believe that in moments of stress it’s difficult to assess whether something is a true threat to our health, a threat to our ego, or just a threat to our success. Part of the reason that I never let myself think negative things about myself, or my capabilities in regards to this race, is that I knew that the moment one of those threats appeared to be a reality I would just be proving myself right that it was going to happen. I don’t even know if that makes sense to anyone else. When I was out there I became very aware, when those threats presented themselves to me, that they were just that… threats; I looked at them like demons looking for my weakness. I used my confidence in myself as a shield.

I spent about 26 of my 32:46 hours out there is a very dark place. It is not a place I can describe and have it make sense… you’ve either been there or you haven’t. And when you were there, you either made something of it or it ate you up.

This race was bigger than me. The magnitude of the task that I took on is starting to settle in; I chose an extremely difficult 100 miler as a first. I now see how easy it would have been for me to fail. But I truly believe that if I had thought about that before I started there is a good chance it would have happened.

This race is proof that the value of an experience has nothing to do with how you place. I have to admit I was actually a little disappointed in the end that I wasn’t the absolute last place person after using that thought to fuel me through the last leg… I was third last 😉 But I suppose when you consider that 125 of us stood on the start line convinced we were going to make it and only 75 finished… it skews how you look at the results anyways.

There were people out there who did not have pacers or a crew. I don’t think that I would have had my same success had I not had the specific people with me that I did. They say that a crew should be made up of people that will give you unconditional love and support when you are at your absolute worst and who will do their best to understand what you need and adapt on the fly. My crew could not have been more amazing. Each person had a specific thing they were in charge of and they took it so seriously. I looked forward to seeing them at the checkpoints because I knew that I was going to be so well taken care of. Jesse did an unbelievable job of managing everything and I’m pretty sure the whole thing may have taken a year off his life. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to run an operation like that, while also have the emotional engagement of wanting to see me succeed, but not be distracted by my suffering. And I am forever grateful to Di and Nils who spent time, money and energy on the job with no glory. I couldn’t have picked better pacers for each leg of the race and I know that a part of my success is due to them. I needed that companionship and they provided the perfect amount of support while still allowing me my independence. These 8 people gave up sleep and energy for a weekend where they got nothing out of it. It’s humbling to feel that sort of support from your friends.

Thank you so much Jesse, Kathleen, Alison, Susan, Di, Nils, Adrian and Ellen. What a trip 😉

Thank you also to my health care practitioners that bent over backwards for me to get me ready and help me recover: Di, Aimee, Karen, Michael, Paul, Melissa and Natasha. You are very talented and demonstrate the genuine caring and selfless qualities of practitioners that we need more of!

And thank you SO much to everyone at home who followed me through the night. I never in a million years would have guessed that people would care to do that. I can’t believe that some of you even got together in support and I am completely touched that you cared that much.

Thank you everyone for showing me more than ever in my life that I live in a loving and supportive network of people. Isn’t that really what we all strive for?

So everyone wants to know what’s next. I have no idea. I cannot even think about putting on running shoes OR lifting shoes right now. I do know that I have a big hole to climb out of in terms of my general CrossFit fitness. I am going to slowly and patiently rebuild in that department. I also know that I am not done running. I’m not going to say that I’ll never do another 50 miler, 100 miler or longer… but probably just not for a while. I’m going to follow the flow for a while and enjoy some of the things in life that I have put on hold for the last year 🙂

Heather

p.s. I am compiling photos from different people and will put an album together soon!

Show Comments Section